Since the 1970s, the Dalai Lama has consistently advised Tibetan Buddhists against involvement with the cult of Shugden. From the late 1990s, various organizations — the Shugden Supporters Community, the Freedom Foundation, the Western Shugden Society, and the International Shugden Community, have been actively protesting against what they portray as the Dalai Lama’s “ban” on the practice of Shugden, and his alleged “ruthless oppression” of the “religious freedom of millions of Shugden worshipers worldwide.” While senior members of the New Kadampa Tradition have repeatedly denied any relationship with these various organizations, the membership of each has consisted almost entirely of NKT members and the demonstrations have been funded and organized by the NKT and its senior members. The difference between the organizations has been merely nominal.
1996-1998: The Shugden Supporters Community & The Freedom Foundation
The first wave of demonstrations, commencing in 1996, were organized at Kelsang Gyatso’s direct behest by his students under the title of “Shugden Supporters Community”[SSC]. Senior-most figures in the SSC comprised of some of Kelsang Gyatso’s closest students and the demonstrations were populated solely by NKT “monks”, “nuns”, and lay followers. The SSC distributed press releases to around 400 worldwide news outlets that accused the Dalai Lama of being a “ruthless dictator‟ guilty of “persecuting his own people”. The group also organized a letter writing campaign to the UK Home Office, asking that the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s visa be revoked on the basis of his human rights record.
Support for the SSC came from what initially appeared to be an independent human rights group, “The Freedom Foundation”. On interviewing its directors however, Andrew Brown of the Independent quickly discovered they were actually close students and major benefactors of Kelsang Gyatso.
The 1996-98 protests were a public relations disaster for the NKT and cost them dearly, financially and in terms of reputation. Soon afterwards, Kelsang Gyatso, in an Open Letter to the Washington Times declared “…in October 1998 we decided to completely stop being involved in this Shugden issue because we realized that in reality this is a Tibetan political problem and not the problem of Buddhism in general or the NKT. We made our decision public at this time — everyone knows the NKT and myself completely stopped being involved in this Shugden issue at all levels.”
2008: The Western Shugden Society
Nevertheless, on learning the Dalai Lama was to visit Europe in 2008, despite his solemn promise and repeated public condemnation by the NKT of the “Tibetan practice of mixing politics and religion”, Kelsang Gyatso wrote to his followers advising them, “I personally will organize demonstrations against the Dalai Lama directly.”
Presumably in order to allay criticisms that the NKT were behaving highly politically, Kelsang Gyatso established the ‘Western Shugden Society’ [WSS]. By acting under this second organization members of NKT could act without contradicting the sect’s publicly professed apoliticism and the organization’s internal rules specifically forbidding members from acting politically.
To further defend the NKT against further damaging allegations that it was behind the demonstrations Kelsang Gyatso wrote:
- The demonstrations will be organised by The Western Shugden Society, not by the NKT.
- The Western Shugden Society is the unification of all the Western Shugden practitioners, and NKT is a part of this main body.[NB NKT Shugden worshipers constitute almost all Western Shugden practitioners: though nominally distinct, each group’s membership is to all intents and purposes the same.]
- There is no basis to break our constitution or internal rules because this is not organized by the NKT.
- We should recognise that the NKT is not involved politically, simply supporting The Western Shugden Society with these demonstrations.
By his own admission therefore, NKT founder Kelsang Gyatso was the organizer of the highly political demonstrations. The front-men at the demonstrations in the UK, the US, Germany and Australia were invariably the NKT’s spiritual directors in those same countries. The international WSS press contact was Gyatso’s personal assistant of eight years. The demonstrations were populated overwhelmingly by Gyatso’s followers. And media data in files downloadable from the WSS website revealed that these had been produced by sect members utilizing computers belonging to the NKT’s publishing wing, Tharpa.
Furthermore, information concerning the WSS available from Companies House in the UK listed a number of NKT centers as WSS ‘related companies’, as well as a number of WSS directors who were simultaneously senior NKT figures. NKT however has repeatedly stressed that it was an independent organization with no political position and no formal association with the Western Shugden Society.
2014: The International Shugden Community
In early 2014 NKT members conducted a further series of protests during the Dalai Lama’s visits to the US and Europe, this time under the title of the ‘International Shugden Community’ [ISC].
The protests were preceded by a massive mail-out in which all relevant local and national journalists, important figures associated with each of the venues to be visited, and senior officials of each local municipality received a free copy of the ISC publication “The False Dalai Lama”.
On this occasion however, the ISC’s confidence in the lax fact-checking of contemporary journalism was misplaced for soon after Norwegian journalist Michael Sandelson ran a pro-protest story in Norway’s ‘The Foreigner’, he realized he had been duped. Perhaps suspicious of the ISC’s public expression of support for the Norwegian Government decision not to meet the Dalai Lama after pressure from Beijing, he decided to investigate; he soon discovered that two directors of the ISC, a registered company, were teachers at the NKTs Oslo Center.
As well as utilizing NKT members from the Oslo center, it emerged that the center’s resident teacher had traveled to Sweden to encourage students and teachers of their center there to attend the demonstrations. The vast majority of demonstrators were NKT members though the ISC press spokesperson (and NKT member) Ms Jeffrey denied any formal links between the ISC and the NKT.
An ISC spokesperson flown especially from the US, millionaire Mr Foley, also happened to be a teacher at one of the NKT’s California centers; his wife acted as ISC spokesperson for the US demonstrations. Foley was interviewed by the seemingly independent internet news channel run by Shugden supporters by the NKT “monk” Rabten, who did not wear his robes to interview Foley; Rabten had also flown from the US to cover the event.
ISC spokesperson Mr. Foley is also CEO of New Horizon Health Inc, Santa Barbara, California, a highly profitable health and diet products business in the US. At a conference in London in August 2014, NKT “monk” Rabten declared himself the representative of the registered non-profit charity, the ‘International Shugden Community’ [USA]. The registered address of the charity is shared with New Horizon Health.
The International Shugden Community appointed another NKT member spokesperson for the October 2014 U.S. visit of the Dalai Lama — Mr Fettig. Fettig was ordained as an NKT ‘monk’ in 2004. He is currently the resident teacher of the Mahakankala Buddhist Center in Santa Barbara. Like his ‘ordained’ forebears, Fettig dresses in lay clothes for press interviews and uses his lay name rather than his “ordained” name, Rigpa.
Inform: The Information Network on New Religious Movements
Despite their denials, the affiliations of the WSS, the ISC, the NKT and their members have not gone unnoticed, in particular by the UK Government Home Office-funded, “Inform”, a specialist academic advisory body set up to provide neutral information on New Religious Movements [NRMs]. After the 2008 demonstrations, Inform listed the WSS as one of the NKT’s “associated organizations” because of the “substantial demonstrable connections” and “visible overlap of the membership base and spokespersons of both groups”.
Citing Sun Yung Moon’s Church of Unification as an example, Inform’s spokesperson confirmed that NRMs often set up what are ostensibly legally independent charities and companies and then “encourage” their membership to become actively involved in their activities. She added that the extent to which the registered directors of the WSS and the ISC are simultaneously monks and nuns within the NKT, means that any ‘voluntary’ work with the WSS/ISC they engage in can be considered a ‘donation in kind’ from the NKT and that such a contribution certainly could not happen without the sect’s agreement.
Two reasons for NKT denying any relationship with these organizations are immediately evident. Under UK Charity Commission rules, an organization claiming charitable status cannot be a charity if its purposes are political.
The second reason relates to the NKT’s well-documented, aggressive drive to recruit followers. Inform expressed concerns that those becoming involved with the NKT are generally not fully aware of the controversial status the group holds within the Tibetan Buddhist community.